Get a taste of Switzerland
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Bern - Is there anything more typically Swiss than a wooden farmstead, set in a glossy meadowland, halfway up a forest-topped hill?
Just picture the scene: distant mountains, grazing cattle, an old barn with huge beams, neat log piles and wildflower window boxes. And, in the foreground, the farmer's smiling wife, wearing a traditional embroidered apron, serving a meal made of meat and vegetables raised, reared or otherwise cultivated almost entirely within a yodelayheehoo of where I''m sitting.
The only typically Swiss things missing were chocolate and watches -and, actually, I had access to those, too. Because despite all appearances to the contrary, I'd come to Switzerland on a city break -and that meant I had access to downtown shopping, and a city centre hotel to return to, once I'd done justice to Frau Ramser''s homemade ice-cream.
For this unusual mix-and-match weekend, I'd chosen to come to Bern, the Swiss capital, not only because it is compact and full of heritage, but also because its setting among fertile, rolling farmland makes it very easy to access. So, by day I could wear out my feet exploring the city's Medieval and Baroque streets, and in the evenings dine in its glorious surrounding countryside, thanks to a marketing initiative called Swiss Tavolata, which arranges traditional meals in rural settings.
But before talking about what I ate, where and with whom, it is worth spending a moment or two on Bern.
The Swiss capital is far from its biggest city. A population of 158 000 places it fifth, behind Zurich, Geneva, Basel and Lausanne, which is fine by me, because it has no sprawling suburbs, no traffic jams and no canyons of glass and steel. Much of it is pedestrianised, and more than half the residents don't own cars.
Bern's Unesco World Heritage Old district is a tongue of land in a loop of river, where the Medieval city originated, and where most of the sandstone buildings date back to the early 15th century. Immaculate cobbled streets studded with fountains (all proffering drinking water) are lined with boutiques in arcades and little restaurants and bars.
My August visit coincided with the annual Buskers Festival, so the streets were full of musicians and puppeteers. There were lots of food and drink stalls: pulled pork, hot dogs and Thai stir fry, but I couldn't find anything Swiss. I ended up having a typical regional dish of kalbsgeschnetzelte, sliced veal, with rösti potatoes, in the Kornhauskeller restaurant. The setting, among soaring painted arches, was fine, and the food good, but it cost me the equivalent of £26 for one dish, and I was in and out within 45 minutes. Not much of a cultural experience.
My first Tavolata was completely different. After a day in town, I took a 20-minute suburban train ride to the village of Wichtracht, to be met by farmer's wife Stefanie Jaberg. Stefanie, with her husband Matthias, runs the family cattle farm Schweikhof, in the Aare river valley south of Bern. Most of their revenue comes from their beef herd, and I got to meet Monty the bull before settling down for a glass of homemade apple juice on the decking overlooking the orchard. There was a bit of time before the other guests arrived, so Stefanie explained how she'd heard about Swiss Tavolata while attending “farmer's wife school”, which sounded terrifyingly organised. Being energetic, she'd already started baking bread in the farm's old wood-fired oven, and retailing that, plus meat, juice and jam, to passing trade. Hosting Tavolata dinners was a natural extension.
At around 6.30pm, other guests arrived. A wine exporter, a teacher and Stefanie's farmer husband Matthias, who had been out playing hornussen, a traditional game of farmer tennis involving lots of running around a field waving big paddles.
We sat down to hors d'oeuvres of Stefanie's own salami, local cheese and handmade biscuits.
There followed a ragout made with Matthias's beef -so much tastier for having been grown, prepared and eaten at source. Eventually, after a jolly evening, I made my way back across the fields to the station, nodding a respectful goodbye to Monty the bull.
The following day, once I had finished sightseeing (and river swimming) in town, I hopped on another local train, then changed to an even more local bus, followed by a short walk up a hill to Horbermatt, the Ramsers' typically Swiss farmstead in its rolling setting on the edge of the Gantrisch nature park.
Like Stefanie and Matthias, the Ramsers are cattle farmers, although Philip also works as a part-time policeman to make ends meet. I was early, so I was given a tour of the property, plus a horse and carriage ride through surrounding woodland.
Dinner was served in the farm's 18th-century grain store, a three-storey wooden building with handpainted scrollwork above the entrance. The menu included an aperitif of Melanie Ramser''s plum schnapps. A beautifully presented hors d'oeuvre of garden salad with edible flowers, a main dish of organic meatballs and duchess potatoes, that aforementioned homemade ice-cream, and a table shared with key personnel from Tavolata itself.
We talked of access, and of suitability for tourists, of how many venues (currently 36), of where and why. And, of course, of prices. At £71 (about R1 500) per head, including wine, Tavolata is not cheap. But if I'd upped my meal at the Kornhauskeller to three courses, with wine, it would probably have ended up being more - and I wouldn't have been able to have seconds. Or been treated like a VIP. On a farm.
With Swiss Tavolata, the flavour of Switzerland is more than just in the food.
The easiest access to Bern is a flight into Zurich, from £73 one way, and then a train ride of about 75 minutes from the airport to Bern.
For Swiss Tavolata, you need to book and pay in advance (£71 per person with wine, £56 without). Venue descriptions, calendars of availability, typical menus and details such as languages spoken are available on swisstavolata.ch.